Review: Jimmy Webb- Just Across the River
Allow me to begin by saying that the only reason why Jimmy Webb isn’t included in the same category as Dylan, Paul Simon, Lennon-McCartney, and the other great songwriters of that era is that he was unable to translate his success as a songwriter into success as a performer. And that itself remains one of the biggest musical mysteries of the 20th century; he had the persona of the archetypal “singer-songwriter” that was so popular back then, he was an excellent piano player, and as Just Across the River, his latest album released earlier this week, shows in the most direct way possible his voice would have fit perfectly onto top 40 radio next to the likes of Billy Joel, Jackson Browne, and Linda Ronstadt.
From what I am able to gather, this album began as a tribute to Webb from various artists and somehow he got involved in it and it became a “duet album” with three tracks performed solo. The result is not the greatest album of his career, but it is well worth listening to (despite some flawed arrangements that I will discuss later) and since the man does not and never will have a greatest hits collection this would serve that function as well as anything.
The album kicks off with “Oklahoma Nights”, a nostalgic tune about coming home originally recorded by Arlo Guthrie. The melody is the main attraction to this song, which is to take nothing from the lyrics. The only problem is that the arrangement is a little too Nashville for my liking, but the band performs it competently. Vince Gill appears on the track although mostly what he offers is harmony vocals.
The arrangement on “Wichita Lineman” (a hit for Glen Campbell, but you already knew that) is still too polished, but it is a little better. Billy Joel sings a verse of the song and then trades lines with Webb on a third verse. Both men turn in great performances and it is good to see that Joel was able to overcome his late-career allergy to recording studios, if only for one tune.
“If You See Me Getting Smaller” was a hit for Waylon Jennings (although Webb recorded it first), so who better to sing it here than Willie? The piano-heavy arrangement is actually quite good and compliments the song well and Willie’s verse shows some of his most passionate singing in years (if we’re not counting the Country Music album). “Who knows who they came to see?”, he sings, “A madman full of beer/A four-piece band and a charter bus/My borderline career”. This is easily one of the album’s highlights.
This is followed by “Galveston”, perhaps Webb’s best song. He and Lucinda Williams give a passionate performance of the classic tale of a soldier coming home over the album’s most stripped-down arrangement.
The best song on the album is up next. Performed with Jackson Browne, “P.F. Sloan” is a tragic and poetic tune that Webb had originally recorded for his debut album as a performer. The arrangement sounds like classic ’70s soft rock and the song remains relevant despite an outdated political reference (“Nixon came and came to stay/He could not wash his sins away”). Webb and Browne sound as if they were born to sing together. (As a side note, if you don’t know who P.F. Sloan is, you should definitely look into it).
Everything about the next track seems predictable, from the featured performer to the arrangement. Glen Campbell duets with Webb on “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”. This version is, of course, nothing compared to Campbell’s original and is thus, the weakest on the album. Both performers are capable of much better and should have chosen another tune.
Next up is the first of three solo recordings by Webb. He tackles “Cowboy Hall of Fame”, another one originally done by Glen Campbell. This version is good, but not great although it does manage to bring forth a lot of the sense of adventure found in the lyrics. Once again, the arrangement is a little overblown.
“Where Words End” is a new song, performed with former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald. Webb shows that he is still able to craft memorable melodies and great lyrics, but the song is ruined by the arrangement that sounds like Michael Bolton goes Nashville. Thankfully, the whole album isn’t arranged this poorly.
All is forgiven on the next track, an acoustic version of “The Highwayman” with Mark Knopfler. This may be slightly blasphemous, but I believe that this version exceeds that of the Highwaymen (I love that version as well and it displays perhaps the only time that Kris Kristofferson covered a songwriter who was almost his equal. Note the word almost.)
“I Was Too Busy Loving Her” features J.D. Souther and the piano-heavy arrangement is perfect for the soft rocker. Not one of the strongest on the album, but not bad either.
One of my favorites is “It Won’t Bring Her Back”, another solo performance by Webb. It was originally recorded by Webb for his 1993 album Suspending Disbelief. The tune is truly a lost country classic that gives advice to a friend who tries in vain to forget about his lost love through alcohol and cigarettes. Webb warns, “You can smoke the whole damn pack/Create a never-ending chain/You can buy yourself a heart attack/But it won’t bring your baby back”. I don’t know if any artist can do this song justice, but if so it deserves to be a hit for somebody.
“Do What You Gotta Do”, a hit for Roberta Flack, is once again a solo performance and it features a great arrangement that is perfect for the rambling melody and heartbreaking lyrics. Great pedal steel solo here as well.
The album ends with “All I Need to Know”, an acoustic collaboration with Linda Ronstadt. The two sound wonderful together, creating some of the most beautiful harmonies I have heard in quite some time. To be totally honest, I wouldn’t mind an album-length collaboration between the two.
This album is not essential, but at the same time I wouldn’t try to convince you not to buy it. Most of you would probably enjoy it if you can overlook a few bad arrangements and the fact that nobody was brave enough to tackle “Macarthur Park” with him. And the album also demonstrates that Webb can still come up with some fine tunes. He should record more of them, preferably with a different arranger.
P.F. Sloan by Jimmy Webb and Jackson Browne